When Disaster Strikes: Teaching Persuasion Through Fundraising

Debra Mashek (Harvey Mudd College)


Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.


To teach students about the effectiveness of persuasion strategies while helping victims of a major natural disaster


In this activity, students compared the effectiveness of several persuasion techniques as they raised funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina. After a brief training session on how to employ the foot-in-the-door technique, the door-in-the-face technique, and other persuasion techniques, students were given Red Cross donation cans, a data collection sheet, and an area of campus to canvass. By the end of the class session, students had not only learned about persuasion strategies through a hands-on experience — they had collected behavioral data for later analysis and raised $600 for disaster relief.


Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a Category 5 storm on August 29, 2005. The magnitude and severity of destruction prompted numerous outreach efforts at the community, national, and global levels. As a small contribution to this outreach effort, our Introductory Psychology class conducted a brief fundraiser designed to merge classroom learning with community service.

This page describes an action teaching exercise designed to (a) help communities left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and (b) provide a hands-on opportunity to learn about the implementation and effectiveness of various persuasion strategies. Although the activity was developed for an Introductory Psychology class in response to Hurricane Katrina, it can readily be adapted for other courses to address a variety of natural emergencies and ongoing community needs.

Brief Description

Students completed this activity on a volunteer basis during one 75-minute class session. Of 39 students enrolled in the course, 30 opted to participate. A brief orientation session provided students with scripts based on four persuasion strategies: foot-in-the-door, door-in-the-face, reciprocity, and direct order. Students also developed their own "wild card" persuasion strategy. I randomly assigned teams of two to solicit donations from different areas of the campus community. Each team cycled through the various persuasion strategies, recording donation responses after each interaction. All teams carried donation cans provided by a local chapter of the American Red Cross. Instructions and a data collection sheet are available in PDF and Word formats.

Assessment of Activity

Students completed the Inclusion of Community in Self Scale at both pre-test and post-test. In addition, at post-test I assessed students' (a) perception of the usefulness of this activity for understanding persuasion strategies, (b) perception of this activity as promoting empathy and helping, (c) enjoyment of the activity, and (d) willingness to recommend the activity for future classes.

The results showed a significant increase from pre-test to post-test in felt connectedness to the communities affected by Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, both quantitative and qualitative reports suggested that students generally found this activity useful for learning about the psychology of persuasion, that they recommended using it in the future, and that they felt the activity promoted empathy and helping. Here are a few sample comments:

  • "It was enjoyable, we raised a lot of money and I learned about the strategies. I wouldn't have the nerve to try some of the approaches so this was a great exercise."

  • "It was cool to see how giving people can be and how persuasion strategies work."

  • "[I was] surprised by how successful the different persuasion techniques were."

  • "I liked knowing that I was doing something to help people in need... It also really helped me better understand persuasion strategies."

  • "Got to do something really useful, and got to think about things I usually don't."

At the same time, the adoption of an action teaching method clearly asked students to step outside their comfort zone. As the following comments illustrate, a subset of students disliked certain aspects of the activity:

  • "Having to approach people for money, I sort of felt a bit guilty, especially when they'd give laundry money or something."

  • "We kept running into people that had already donated. Persuasion strategies didn't seem to matter because the event was so catastrophic everyone seemed to want to donate."

  • "There was no option on the paper for 'not carrying any money.' That was the #1 reason people did not contribute and I think that should have been factored in somehow."

  • "I enjoyed [taking] part in the study but I would have liked the study to be longer and compare only a few persuasion strategies."

These comments highlight potential pitfalls that other instructors may wish to consider when adapting this exercise.

Suggested Adaptations

For me, the most exciting aspect of this activity is how easily it could be adapted to fit the learning objectives of other courses, including statistics, research methods, social psychology, and community psychology. Importantly, one need not wait for a disaster to use an action teaching approach. Instructors and students can work with community agencies to identify other causes worthy of a fundraiser (e.g., anti-poverty initiatives, youth programs, educational outreach).

An Unexpected Perk

I developed this activity with a very short-range objective (i.e., supporting immediate disaster relief efforts). The class met this goal, raising $600 in just one hour. However, an unexpected perk emerged from this activity: it provided a useful thematic focus for a number of discussions throughout the course. We referred back to the action teaching experience when discussing topics such as research design, research ethics, social psychology, and helping behavior. For example, differences in each team's interpretation of the instructions served as a useful example of experimenter error. As another example, when discussing research ethics, we considered the discomfort some students felt during the exercise. By referring to the activity at later times in the course, students continued to learn valuable lessons from it, and course topics felt more cohesive and connected than they might have otherwise.